WHILE a discrimination lawsuit brought by public housing residents against the city and the federal government was being heard last month in U.S. District Court, two research reports were issued that shed light on broader issues of housing affordability and vacancies in Baltimore and the region.
One report, "Rethinking Local Affordable Housing Strategies: Lessons from 70 Years of Policy and Practice," touches on many issues raised during the 3 1/2 - week trial - not as matters of legal recourse but rather as sound state and metropolitan public policy.
For example, the report, a joint effort by prominent Washington think tanks the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, makes the point that since housing markets are regional, affordable housing policies should be regional as well - a key goal of the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on behalf of tenants that is now awaiting a decision by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis.
"In an era of population and employment decentralization, the metropolitan area - not the individual political jurisdiction - represents the appropriate level at which to think about and act on access to affordable housing," says the report, which has as its lead authors Bruce Katz of Brookings and Margery Austin Turner of the Urban Institute.
Echoing an increasingly common refrain among urban thinkers, the authors emphasize that such an approach has potential advantages for more than just poor people: "Enabling low-income families to live closer to employment centers (and stronger schools) in the regional economy not only will benefit those families and their children, but will also help reduce commute times, meet employer needs for workers and ameliorate other negative consequences associated with current metropolitan growth patterns."
The report also says flatly that "race matters" in affordable housing - which, of course, was the raison d'etre of the ACLU suit.
Noting that federal housing policies have contributed to long-established patterns of residential racial segregation, the report says that ignoring that reality will undermine nondiscriminatory housing policies.
"For example, a homeownership assistance program may not lead to wealth accumulation for minority households if segregation and discrimination limit their housing options to minority neighborhoods where values are not appreciating," the report notes.
The report also raises several issues that were not broached in the trial but are important to understanding the shortage of decent, affordable housing in the area. Key among them is the notion that "income policy IS housing policy."
"Policies that help people increase their incomes will help address housing hardship as well," the report says. "Initiatives that help low-income families find and keep jobs, build skills and advance economically should also be incorporated into strategies for making housing more affordable."
The other report, "Vacating the City: An Analysis of New Homes vs. Household Growth," demonstrates how regional trends in residential construction can lead to abandonment in cities nationwide. The premise is simple: When a surplus of housing is created in a region, the older, more deteriorated units are the ones that wind up being empty.
"With more new housing than growth, abandonment is unavoidable - and the more that construction exceeds growth, the greater the abandonment," says the report for Brookings by Cleveland State University researchers Thomas Bier and Charlie Post. "In most cases, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, the central city bears the brunt of abandonment."
Using data from the 2000 census, the report shows that in the Baltimore region during the 1990s, the number of new-housing permits exceeded the number of new households by 31 percent - and that city households decreased by 6.7 percent while the percentage of dwellings that were vacant increased 5 percent.
The report mentions Maryland's Smart Growth policy to channel development to older established areas as a potentially "significant step" in addressing disparities between new housing and growth, and says "time will tell" if the policy will be successful in encouraging more construction in the city.
There are indications that something is.
Figures from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council show that in the past two years, an average of 711 new building permits a year were issued in the city. That's more than twice the annual average of 316 new building permits that were issued in the city between 1990 and 2001.
Meanwhile, the annual average of new building permits during those years declined in four of the region's five suburban counties, the exception being Carroll County.
The city's share of the regional total of new building permits, while still small, more than doubled to 6.6 percent.
What's needed now is similar trends for affordable housing units in the suburbs.